DAKAR - Two slave-owners in Mauritania face 10 and 20 years in prison after a court handed down the country's harshest anti-slavery ruling yet, activists said Friday.
The West African country criminalized slavery in 2007 and this was the third-ever prosecution. In past cases, slave-owners were sentenced to two to five years.
"This is a big victory," Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International told Reuters. "The sentences are quite high and in line with the law, which is by no means a given."
Mauritania has one of the highest rates of slavery in the world, with 1 in 100 people living as slaves, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index. Activists say that anti-slavery laws are rarely enforced.
The two cases were brought by former slaves in the city of Nouadhibou.
In one case, the verdict pronounced Wednesday was the result of a seven-year fight, said Salimata Lam of Mauritanian group SOS Esclaves, which assisted the victims.
A man who was sentenced to 20 years cannot be found, but a woman sentenced to 10 years was taken to prison, she said.
Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania, which became the last country worldwide to legally abolish it in 1981.
Black descendants of certain ethnic groups are often born into slavery and spend their lives working as domestic servants or cattle herders for lighter-skinned Mauritanians.
Earlier this year, the African Union urged Mauritania to issue harsher sentences for the crime.
"I think the trend is irreversible. You can't close your eyes to this situation," said Lam.
But there is still a long way to go, she added. Anti-Slavery International has helped file at least 40 cases from former slaves that are lingering in courts, Sobik said.
Mauritania has jailed more anti-slavery activists than slave-owners, and the repression of organizations fighting to end slavery is growing, rights groups said this month.